Networking is The Thing people tell you to do if you want to land that great job after university, move forward once you’re on the job market, or make your new business take off. But what is a good network? Does the person with the most contacts on Linkedin win the race?
I have always loved meeting new people and discussing and exchanging experiences, opinions and good advice. It contributes to making life more interesting, at least to me. When I look at how I “connect” with people, it turns out that the best contacts I make are with people with whom I share something. It can be an interest in a particular topic, a situation in life, or simply that from the minute the discussion starts, we just get along perfectly and the debate flows without my really knowing why.
On the other hand, I have never liked networking for the sake of adding “potentially useful” people to my contacts list. It makes me feel terribly uncomfortable to approach someone and try to chit chat (I say “try” because it rarely works well) to create a connection, just because they are in a position of influence which might be useful later on.
I have sometimes wondered how people manage to become chummy, through backslapping and beer drinking, with persons who are in these “positions of influence”. Sometimes, it seems, with no particular points in common at all. I have also had a feeling that all the backslapping is a guy thing. I have told myself time and time again that I am probably wrong, and that I am not helping my own case by pulling out gender bias like this, far from it.
But, it turns out that women actually do network differently from men. In a book called Beyond the Glass Ceiling (“Bortom glastaket” in Swedish, by Lena Gustafsson and Ulrika Sedell), a Swedish national study shows that women tend to create their networks more around “social contacts” and men more around “useful contacts”.
Are social contacts less useful?
Harvard Business Review published an article in February about this. A recent study shows that women’s networking doesn’t necessarily bring them to higher positions. Instead, staying long in a company and having a reputed degree seem to make more of a difference. At the same time, one third of women in leading positions in Sweden got to those positions thanks to their networks, while Swedish men to a larger extent found higher positions through ads (according to Stjärnkraft, or “Star Power” literally translated, a study about women leaders by consultancy firm Karios Future & WES). Having all of this is probably the optimum solution.
But even if your network is more based on “social” than “useful”, it may turn out that the social actually becomes useful. It can help you share and develop ideas on how you want to evolve as a person. It can also help you to remain determined and gain momentum if you want to kick off something new, or to re-surface if you are going through a difficult period. All this is just as important if you want to grow as a person, and influence your career.
During my year off, I have met two wonderful women who are both driven and determined. We met for lunch once, just because we thought it would be nice. Then we met again, because we had started a discussion on work that wasn’t finished once the lunch hour came to an end. These lunches have turned into recurring “coaching lunches” where we exchange ideas, debate leadership, and support and push each other in relation to our jobs, and all that goes with it. They may not be the people who will offer me The Top Job later in life, but they are part of the people who make a difference to me, and that will help me make a difference once I get back to my own job.
Networking isn’t about adding as many people as you can to that list on Linkedin. It is about finding the people who can help you move forward. It may be people with influence, or it may be people with insights. In the end, the most important is that it is the right people for you, and that they help you grow, one way or another.